George W. Bush and the end of conservatism
Michael I. Niman
I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. The American media went into a celebratory frenzy. With the intellectual depth of a squid, pundit after pundit lined up to pen "socialism's" eulogy. The "evil empire" was disemboweled. The former Soviet satellites were sinking into chaotic fratricide as the triumph of free-market capitalism loomed just over the horizon.
But I didn't see it that way. I wrote at the time that the collapse of the Soviet Union would ultimately lead to the death, not of socialism, but of capitalism. My argument was simple. The "New Right" crowd in Washington was now able to pursue a radical free market agenda in the former Soviet satellites--an agenda that liberal Americans would never allow back home. And that agenda of disassembling generations worth of public health, education, retirement, housing, and cultural programs, I argued, would prove so disastrous as to expose the free market for the barbarous medieval throwback that it is.
I'm the first to admit that my theory was "out there." But time seems to be proving it correct. Former Soviet satellites have either rebounded back from the market, re-instituting socialist reforms and reconstructing a social safety net within a democratic framework, or they've sunk into quagmires of totalitarian kleptocracy. Neither direction models the success that the Reaganites dreamed of. Meanwhile, European Union countries continued moving left for fifteen years, with the EU emerging as a democratic socialist alternative to the social despair of unbridled market greed.
Back here in the United States, however, Americans continued electing corporate-friendly conservatives, such as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who continued to shift the tax burden downward while gutting public education, public transportation, culture and arts funding, and healthcare, among other things.
Then George W. Bush seized the White House. And Paul Wellstone's death flipped the Senate to Republican control just as right wing media giants like Clear Channel, Sinclair, Fox, and Liberty Media were consolidating their hegemony over the American media.
One would think, now, that the current political moment would be a conservative wet dream. Frat boys rule! Suddenly everything is within reach--the complete wacko agenda--privatizing social security, eliminating the income tax, privatizing public education, eliminating environmental regulation, outlawing abortion, and pushing gay Americans back into the closet. Anything is possible. A century's worth of social progress is vulnerable as the Bush team leads us not into the twenty-first century but back into the nineteenth.
Many conservatives, however, aren't donning their party hats or twirling their noisemakers. Rather, to the contrary, many thinking conservatives see this as threatening the end of their movement. As with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Democratic Party--replete with Republican control of the House, Senate, White House, Military, CIA, and Federal judiciary--offers the Grand Old Party a historically unprecedented opportunity to screw up.
This is why Scott McConnell, writing for the American Conservative magazine, endorsed John Kerry for president. It's not that he liked Kerry--he clearly didn't support the man or his policies. But he wrote that Bush's policies, by driving the country into ruination, "will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations."
Bush, he added, "has become the Left's perfect foil--its dream candidate." McConnell went on to describe Dubya as behaving "like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be." Kerry, by comparison, would be a powerless president. "If he were to win, his dearth of charisma would likely ensure him a single term. He would face challenges from within his own party and a thwarting of his most expensive initiatives by a Republican Congress." McConnell added that Kerry would be bogged down with mopping up after Bush. "Much of his presidency would be absorbed by trying to clean up the mess left to him in Iraq. He would be constrained by the swollen deficits and a ripe target for the next [more centrist] Republican nominee."
McConnell urged conservatives to vote for Kerry--essentially buying time for Republicans to get their act together and maintain their party's momentum into the 2008 elections. Kerry, while powerless in stopping this momentum, would perform the painful and unpopular tasks of paying off the bill for the Bush White House's deficit spending while extricating the nation from the Iraq quagmire. This politically toxic combination of belt tightening and body bags would effectively guarantee Kerry a legacy as a one-term president. The conservative media would label him a "liberal," making his failed presidency become the failure of liberalism.
Another prominent conservative, Paul Craig Roberts, a former Wall Street Journal editor and Ronald Reagan's Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, blames Bush for discrediting American conservatism in the eyes of the world. He argues that "the crude propagandistic Republican campaign against John Kerry is shocking to Europeans. The childishness of American conservatives scares them." According to Roberts, "America's allies are amazed at the ignorance manifested by the Bush administration." And, he adds, "The entire world is stunned by the Bush administration's abandonment of a half century of U.S. diplomacy in favor of misguided, unilateralist, 'preemptive' naked aggression on totally false pretenses against Iraq," ultimately "giving Osama bin Laden the war he wanted."
Bush's war, according to Roberts, "is the least justifiable military action since Hitler invaded Poland." The frightening reality that Bush revived the Nazi "preemptive war" doctrine caused Roberts to warn that " America's European allies cannot differentiate the immaturity of American conservatives from the ignorance of the National Socialists [Nazis]." For traditional conservatives such as Roberts, then, the Iraq war is more than a mere ugly distraction from the conservative agenda: it will discredit the Bush administration and ultimately discredit the conservative agenda associated with the Bush junta.
Scott McConnell made many of the same points as Roberts, arguing that "it is as if the Bush administration sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliché about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy." He argues they have done this by "launching an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S." and by the "doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations." While McConnell argues that this isn't conservatism, it's what the world now equates with conservatism. And it's also a policy that is destined to fail, pulling the whole conservative movement down with it while strengthening the credibility of global, anti-imperialist movements. Perhaps this is why the Bush administration has, as of this writing, suffered five high level cabinet resignations (and one eviction) since the November elections. Either the ship is going down and the rats are jumping off or Bush is assembling a doomsday cabinet.
This is the Bush as Marx scenario. Indian novelist and political columnist Arundhati Roy credited Bush with laying the mechanics of empire bare for all the world to see. Marxist economists have tried to do this for generations but were too crippled by their own class privilege to communicate to the masses effectively. They were bogged down by the very jargon that the New England born and bred Bush so effectively discarded in favor of an ersatz populist lingo. Ultimately it took the Republican Bush to make imperialism and class struggle as clear as the sun in the sky. It's no wonder conservatives are fretting.
Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism in the communication department at Buffalo State College. An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2004, issue of ArtVoice and the January/February 2005 edition of The Humanist . His previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com.
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